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If there is one issue that unites Republicans and Democrats, it’s robocalls.
The automated calls that have flooded constituents’ phones are prompting congressional action. Over the summer, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3375, the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, by a vote of 429-3.
The act amends the Communications Act of 1934 to clarify laws against making robocalls, and puts in place call-blocker technology to prevent future calls.
In an Aug. 9 newsletter, U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, endorsed the act, claiming that "robocalls prey on the most vulnerable among us, including senior citizens.
"Statistics indicate Americans have experienced 29.3 illegal robocalls so far this year, marking a 64 percent increase since 2016," Hartzler wrote.
Hartzler’s statement included a typo, spokesperson Anna Swick said. She meant to say 29.3 billion illegal robocalls. That’s a big oopsy. Swick noted that a July 24 news release included the word billion.
But there’s another wrinkle: How many are really considered illegal?
Any phone call that includes a recorded message rather than a live person is considered a robocall, according to the Federal Trade Commission. If the receiver of the call did not give consent to receive it, the call is considered illegal. So that robocall reminding you of a doctor’s appointment is probably OK; the one promising you riches from a foreign prince probably isn’t.
We decided to take a closer look into the robocall issue and find out whether Hartzler’s statement — the one with 29.3 "billion" that was intended to run — holds up.
In her newsletter, Hartzler used numbers from a robocall blocking app called YouMail that were cited in the report for H.R. 3375. But there’s a big difference between Hartzler’s numbers and YouMail’s, and that is the use of the word "illegal."
YouMail CEO Alex Quilici said the app tracks the calls made by its 10 million users and uses their area codes to extrapolate the data for the entire country and specific states. The app then funnels that data into a robocall index.
The app does not, however, distinguish between illegal and legal robocalls. YouMail’s data actually reports 29.3 billion total robocalls from January until the end of July.
YouMail gives four categories of calls: alerts, payment reminders, scams, and telemarketing. So, you could guess that the scams are illegal. But Hartzler’s claim didn’t break it down.
Other databases suggest that robocalls are a problem, but the numbers vary by government agency. The Federal Communications Commission received 232,000 robocall complaints in 2018, according to the House Report. The Federal Trade Commission reported 4.1 million robocall complaints in 2018.
Comparing YouMail data and federal data isn’t exactly apples to apples. YouMail tracks all robocalls received by its app users, while the FCC and FTC only collect complaints. These reports can give some sense of the problem, but they leave out those people who don’t file complaints or use call-blocker apps.
Hartzler stated that robocalls target senior citizens, and that Americans have experienced 29.3 illegal robocalls this year. When asked, her office amended the statement to 29.3 billion.
She said these were illegal calls. Some might be, but not all of them. Because of this key difference, we rate this claim Mostly False.
Email exchange with Anna Swick, spokesperson for Vicky Hartzler, Aug. 27, 2019.
Interview, Alex Quilici, CEO YouMail, Aug. 28, 2019.
Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Information, What To Do If You Get A Robocall, accessed Aug. 27, 2019.
Federal Communications Commission, Report on Robocalls, accessed Aug. 27, 2019.
First Orion, Consumer Alert: Scammers Ramp Up Calls for Tax Season, accessed Aug. 27, 2019.
H.R. 3375, Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, accessed on Aug. 27, 2019.
H. Rept. 116-173, Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, accessed on Aug. 27, 2019.
YouMail, Robocall Index, accessed on Aug. 27, 2019.
FTC, "Abusive Robocalls and How We Can Stop Them," accessed on Aug. 28, 2019.
FTC, National Do Not Call Registry, accessed on Sept. 11, 2019.
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